views updated May 29 2018


The Egyptian expression per aʿo ("the Great House"), transcribed and vocalized pirʿu in Akkadian and parʿo in Hebrew, did not originally designate the king of Egypt, but rather his palace, and was used in this sense in Egyptian texts until the middle of the 18th dynasty (c. 1575–1308 b.c.e.). Circumlocutions were frequently used to specify the king in the texts of the 18th dynasty, and during the reign of the great conqueror and empire-builder, Thutmosis ii (c. 1490–1436 b.c.e.), per aʿo, i.e., the palace, began to appear as another such designation, just as in more modern times "The Sublime Porte" meant the Turkish sultan. The Egyptian texts never used this designation, however, as part of the official titulary of the king, although from the 22nd dynasty on (c. 945–730 b.c.e.), it was regularly added, in popular speech, to the king's personal name. In the non-Egyptian sources, particularly in the Bible where it occurs not infrequently, Pharaoh always means the king of Egypt, although frequently the earlier usage, without the addition of the king's personal name, is followed. Attempts have been made by modern scholarship to identify the Pharaoh of the oppression and of the Exodus with various rulers of the 19th dynasty, but unanimous consensus on the identity has not yet been reached.

[Alan Richard Schulman]

pharaoh and the egyptians in the aggadah

Influence of Jews' Experience in Roman Egypt

Rabbinic references to the biblical Egyptians are almost invariably hostile and they are probably strongly colored by the unfortunate experiences of the Jews in Roman Egypt. Ancient Alexandria was the birthplace of racial antisemitism and the scene of major pogroms in 38, 66, and 116–117 c.e. Egyptian Jewry outside of Alexandria was massacred toward the end of Trajan's reign. The Egyptians, even more than the Greeks, were, according to Josephus, the Jews' bitterest enemies and the originators of the worst libels against them.

The rabbis, accordingly, depicted the ancient Egyptians as uniformly evil and depraved – ugly both in appearance and character. Thus, when Abraham approached Egypt, he is said to have warned Sarah that Egypt was a center of sexual immorality (Sifra 7:11, end; Jos., Ant., 1:162). Moreover, Abraham pointed out, they were entering "a country whose inhabitants are ugly and black" (Gen. R. 40:4), evidently a reflection of the racial contempt harbored by the relatively fair-skinned Semites for the darkskinned Hamites.

When Pharaoh, "this wicked man" (Tanḥ. B., Gen. 33), took Sarah for himself, he was, according to the Midrash, duly informed by her that she was a married woman; but this did not deter him from trying to seduce her (Gen. R. 41:2). He was, however, whipped by an angel and stricken with leprosy.

Leper Motif

Leprosy figures repeatedly in the punishments inflicted or threatened on the Egyptians. The Pharaoh of the oppression became a leper and sought to cure himself by bathing in the blood of Hebrew children specially slain for this purpose (Ex. R. 1:34). Also, the Egyptian people were smitten with leprosy along with the inflammation of boils (ibid. 11:6). The leper motif was probably a literary vengeance for the Egyptian calumny that the Israelites of the Exodus were lepers (Jos., Apion, 1:229, 233ff., 305ff.), while the slaughter of the Hebrew children in Egypt evidently alludes to the atrocities committed in the course of the Jewish uprising and its suppression in 116–117 c.e.

Potiphar's Wife

Not surprisingly, Potiphar's wife becomes, in rabbinic literature, the seductress par excellence, a shameless, wicked woman (Ruth R. 6:1), who behaved "like an animal," was willing to murder her husband (Gen. R. 87:4–5), and went to fantastic lengths to win Joseph's love (Yoma 35b; Sot 36b).

Potiphar and Pharaoh

Even Potiphar, who according to the biblical account, bestowed many favors upon Joseph, as well as the Pharaoh who raised the Hebrew prisoner to the position of vizier and welcomed his family to Egypt, are treated by the rabbis with disdain and even outright hostility. Potiphar, "an Egyptian – a cunning man" (Gen. R. 86:3), had purchased Joseph for the purpose of sodomy, and was appropriately punished by castration (Sot. 13b). He was not even justified in having Joseph imprisoned, despite his wife's accusations, for he knew Joseph to be innocent, and, indeed, told him so (Gen. R. 87:9). When Joseph became ruler of Egypt, he sentenced his former master to lifelong imprisonment (Mid. Ps. to 105:7).

Pharaoh and Judah

Pharaoh, repeatedly consigned by the Midrash among "the wicked" (Gen. R. 89:4), was said to have been charged by Judah with making false promises and indulging in pederasty, and in his anger Judah threatened to kill both Joseph and Pharaoh and, indeed, to destroy all Egypt (ibid. 93:6). Judah's furious threats no doubt personify and reflect the savage fighting in Egypt and Cyrene during the Jewish rising in 116/117 c.e.

Pharaoh and Joseph

Even Joseph had scant respect for his royal benefactor. Whenever he wanted to make a false oath, he would swear in Pharaoh's name (Gen R. 91:7). When presenting some of his brothers to Pharaoh (Gen. 47:2), Joseph chose the weakest among them in order to avoid having them drafted into Egyptian military service. This Midrash seems to reflect rabbinic opposition to Jewish mercenaries who for centuries had been serving Egypt's rulers.

Oppression and Enslavement of the Hebrews

In line with the anti-Egyptian attitude of the rabbis, the Pharaoh of the oppression was depicted by some as identical with the Pharaoh of Joseph's time. He was not "new" (Ex. 1:8), only his anti-Israelite decrees were new. It was not that "he knew not Joseph" but in his ingratitude he deliberately ignored the fact that Joseph had ever existed, and he gratuitously initiated the persecution of the Hebrews (Sot. 11a). Thus, even the best of the Pharaohs who had promoted Joseph and invited the Israelites to settle in Egypt, turned out to be a wicked rogue.

According to one rabbinic view, however, the initiative to oppress and enslave the Hebrews was taken not by Pharaoh himself but by his Egyptian subjects. At first he opposed this plan on the grounds that "were it not for Joseph we would not be alive"; but the Egyptians deposed him, restoring him after three months on the express condition that he would do as they wished (Ex. R. 1:8). This interesting interpretation was probably designed to justify the severe punishment of the Egyptian people.

Having cunningly enslaved the Israelites, Pharaoh imposed on them increasingly onerous tasks, often endangering their lives, and brutally burning or immuring infants and even adults in unfinished buildings whenever the Israelites failed to complete their work quota (Sot. 11a–b; Ex. R. 1:10–11, 18:9).

Casting of Hebrew Infants into River

The decree to cast the infants into the river (Ex. 1:22) applied to the Egyptians, too, because Pharaoh was misled by his astrologers who were not sure whether the savior of Israel would be a Hebrew or an Egyptian (Sot. 12a), a legend which must have been influenced by the Egyptian stories that Moses was an Egyptian. The Hebrew girls who were to be spared were meant to be reserved to satisfy the sexual appetites of the Egyptians (Ex. R. 1:18).

Egyptian Immorality

Pharaoh is also charged with having claimed divine honors for himself (ibid. 8:12; Tanh. B., Ex. 16) – a normal practice among Egyptian rulers down to Roman times – and with an attempt to seduce the Hebrew midwives (Ex. R. 1:15).

Egyptian immorality is a constantly recurring theme in rabbinic literature, due presumably to actual observation of the contemporary Egyptian scene. The killing of the Egyptian taskmaster by Moses (Ex. 2:12) was justified by the rabbis on the grounds that the Egyptian had violated the wife of the Hebrew slave and, having been detected by her husband, was on the point of beating him to death (Ex. R. 1:28; Lev. R. 32:4; cf. Targ. Ps-Jon., Lev. 24:10). Even when the Egyptians were pursuing the Israelites into the Red Sea, they were like "inflamed stallions" driven on by expectations of sexual orgies.

Only Pharaoh's daughter who rescued Moses from the river is given favorable treatment, and her bathing in the river is interpreted as ritual immersion for the purpose of proselytization (Sot. 12b; Ex. R. 1:23). Although a firstborn, she was saved because of Moses' prayer (Ex. R. 18:3).

Legend of Moses' Taking Pharaoh's Crown

The legend of the infant Moses taking Pharaoh's crown and placing it on his own head (Ex. R. 1:26, et al.) apparently alludes, not as is commonly believed, to the plagues that Moses was to bring on Egypt, but to the messianic redemption when the kingdoms of the gentiles – including that of the Egyptians – would disappear. Significantly, an early Midrash predicts that all the plagues of Egypt would be repeated in Rome (Tanh. B., Ex. 15b, 22a–b).

Moses' Treatment of Pharaoh

Despite Pharaoh's overweening arrogance, Moses was commanded by God to treat him with the deference and respect due to a king (Ex. R. 7:3), a widely current political concept promoted by those rabbis who favored cooperation with the Roman authorities as being ultimately in the best interests of the Jews. Nevertheless, Pharaoh cut a sorry figure during the Exodus when he was thoroughly humbled, being compelled to look for Moses and Aaron at night, mocked and derided by the Hebrew children, and begging Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt (Mekh., Bo, 13; Tanh. B., Ex. 26). This humiliation as well as the ten plagues and the drowning of the Egyptian host in the Red Sea were, however, well-deserved.

Depiction of Plague of Firstborn

The plague of the firstborn, in particular, is depicted in lurid colors. None could escape, for even the lowest classes hated the Hebrews and desired their humiliation and persecution (Mekh., Bo, 13: Tanh. B., Ex. 22). Only those Egyptians who joined the "mixed multitude" (Ex. 12:38), celebrated the Passover with the Israelites, and left Egypt with them, were saved from the plague (Ex. R. 18:10).

Jewish animosity toward the Egyptians found eloquent expression in the Passover Haggadah, where the plagues which befell the Egyptians – both in Egypt and at the Red Sea – were homiletically multiplied many times over (cf. Mekh., Amalek, 2; Ex. R. 23:9).

Conciliatory Spirit of Later Rabbis

In the light of such bitter Egyptian-Jewish enmity, it is all the more remarkable that within little more than a century after the bloodbath of Egyptian Jewry, R. Jonathan, a fervently patriotic rabbi, is reported to have said that when the ministering angels wished to chant a song of praise before God at the time when the Israelites were saved at the Red Sea, He rebuked them, saying, "The work of my hands [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea, and you want to chant a song before me!" (Sanh. 39b; Meg. 10b). Although the parallel versions in the Palestinian Midrashim (Ex. R. 23:7; Tanh. B. ii, 60; Mid. Ps. to 106:2) transfer God's concern from the Egyptians to Israel, it appears that R. Jonathan's statement, as preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, is the original version. Indeed one of the reasons for which, on Passover, the entire Hallel is recited only on the first day is that on the seventh day the Egyptians were drowned (pdrk 189). In the same conciliatory spirit, some rabbis believed that Pharaoh was not drowned in the Red Sea, but lived to become king of Nineveh and lead the people in repentance in response to Jonah's warning (pdre 43; Mekh., Be-shallaḥ, 6; cf. Jonah 3:4ff.).

[Moses Aberbach]

in islam

Pharaoh of the *Koran is the king who oppressed the people of Israel in *Egypt; Musā (*Moses) and Hārūn (*Aaron) negotiated with him. In accordance with the counsel of his advisors, among them Hāmān, Pharaoh ordered that all male children be killed (Sura 2:46; 7:137). Āsiya, the wife of Pharaoh, adopted Moses, who had been found in an ark (28:9). Pharaoh believed that he was god and therefore ordered Hāmān to erect a tower which would reach the heavens, thereby enabling him to wage war against the god of Moses (28:38; 40:38). He severely penalized those who returned to God, including his righteous wife (7:111; 26:45). A description of the mission of Moses and Aaron is found in Humayya's. Several conversations which Moses and Aaron had with Pharaoh are given in the *Koran. There is a great degree of similarity in content between Humayya's description and the dialogue of Sura 20:49–56. Pharaoh conspired to kill Moses (Sura 26:33). One of the believers, who is not mentioned by name, attempted to save Moses (40:29). The unbelieving wives of the believers Noah and Lot are contrasted with Pharaoh's wife, who unlike her husband, was a believer (66:10–11). When Pharaoh saw his people drowning in the sea, he repented and believed in Allah (10:90–92). Indeed, it is not explicitly stated in the Book of Exodus that Pharaoh drowned; this can be deduced from Psalms 136:15. Therefore, there is a suggestion in the aggadah that Pharaoh was saved. Humayya, however, knew that Allah did not take notice of Pharaoh's prayer and that he drowned (34:19). This view also appears in Muslim legend. After Pharaoh asked to repent, Gabriel closed Pharaoh's mouth with the mud of the sea, thus making him unable to repeat the verse: "I believe that there is no god but He in whom the people of Israel believe" (10:90). Muslim legends greatly influenced later Jewish aggadah. *Muhammad obviously was confused concerning Āsiya, since she plays the same role in the Koran as Pharaoh's daughter does in the Bible. Pharaoh was very cruel to her because she was an Israelite. Various stories are related about her death: she was cast down upon a rock; Pharaoh whipped her to death, but she did not feel the pain.

[Haïm Z'ew Hirschberg]


A.H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar (19573), 71–76. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 7 (1938), 368–70 (index). in islam: Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, 20 (1328 a.h.), 19–22; Thaʿlabī, Qiṣaṣ (1356 a.h.), 140–68; Kisāʾī, Qiṣas (1356 a.h.), 195–224; G. Weil (ed.), The Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud (1846); J. Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen (1926), 56; J.W. Hirschberg, Juedische und christliche Lehren im vor- und fruehislamischen Arabien (1939), 61–62, 129–34.


views updated Jun 11 2018

pharaoh a ruler in ancient Egypt; specifically in early use, any of those mentioned in the Old Testament and Hebrew Scriptures, under whom Joseph flourished and in whose time the oppression and Exodus of the Israelites took place.

Recorded from Middle English, the word comes via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek Pharaō, from Hebrew par῾ōh, from Egyptian pr-῾o ‘great house’.
Pharaoh ant a small yellowish African ant that has established itself worldwide, living as a pest in heated buildings, so named because such ants were believed (erroneously) to be one of the plagues of ancient Egypt.
Pharaoh hound a hunting dog of a short-coated tan-coloured breed with large, pointed ears, so named because the breed is said to have been first introduced to Gozo and Malta by Phoenician sailors.
Pharaoh's serpent an indoor firework that produces ash in a coiled, serpentine form as it burns, named by association with Aaron's staff which turned into a serpent before Pharaoh (Exodus 7:9).


views updated May 18 2018

Phar·aoh / ˈfarˌō; ˈfe(ə)rˌō; ˈfāˌrō/ (also phar·aoh) • n. a ruler in ancient Egypt.DERIVATIVES: phar·a·on·ic / ˌfarāˈnik; ˌfe(ə)r-/ adj.


views updated May 11 2018

pharaoh Title of the rulers of ancient Egypt. Though loosely applied to all Egyptian kings, the title was only adopted during the New Kingdom. The pharaoh was considered divine, an incarnation of the god Horus.


views updated Jun 27 2018

Pharaoh ★★ 1966

An expensive Polish epic about the power plays of royalty in ancient Egypt. Dubbed. 125m/B VHS . PL Wieslawa Mazurkiewicz, Barbara Brylska, Krstyna Mikolajewska, Jerzy Zelnick; D: Jerzy Kawalerowicz; W: Jerzy Kawalerowicz; C: Jerzy Wojcik; M: Adam Walacinski.